Turnovers, widely regarded as the biggest X-factor in any given game, can make or break an entire team's season. This past Friday, those who tuned in to watch the Orange Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State saw how quickly a turnover can change the course of the game.
In roughly a two minute stretch from 3:12 remaining in the fourth quarter to the 1:18 mark, the ball changed hands three times. Trailing by five points, Ohio State drove to the Clemson side of the field before Braxton Miller fumbled on a sack, handing Clemson the ball and the opportunity to run out the clock. Fortunately for Urban Meyer and co., Clemson's Tajh Boyd gave it right back with an interception of his own. Not to be outdone, Miller turned the ball over one final time, throwing a pick on a post route that would seal the win for the ACC squad. The polarizing emotional swings caused by these plays in just a two minute period show the power turnovers have in changing a game. It's a fairly obvious statement, but looking at the this season's turnover margins for each Big Ten team, we get a good idea of who benefited the most.
Now, before we dive into the Big Ten, let's briefly talk about how much luck is involved in creating and committing turnovers. Certainly, there is skill involved in creating turnovers as a defense. Those of you who are Chicago Bears fans have seen Charles Tillman punch the ball from the hands of unsuspecting wide receivers, seemingly since the beginning of time. And by the same measure, there is skill involved in avoiding turnovers on offense, as proven by the ability of elite quarterbacks to avoid throwing interceptions. This is not a coincidence.
Still, there is still a great deal of luck at play. Think of all the times you've seen a tipped or dropped ball go directly into the stomach of a defensive back. Think of all the times you've seen a loose ball take a weird bounce and jump into the waiting arms of a defensive lineman (who potentially then ran it back for a FAT GUY TOUCHDOWN).
By observing the consistency (or lack thereof) at the top and bottom of the national turnover margin rankings, we can evaluate the ability of teams to maintain an elite turnover differential. Of the top 20 teams in turnover margin in 2012, only two maintained a top spot in 2013: Oregon and Louisville. These teams possess two of the best quarterbacks in college football, Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater, both of whom are prolific in the area of limiting interceptions. A larger sample size (the database goes back to 2007) yields similar results. No more than a few teams maintain their top 20 status from year to year, and although there is significant roster turnover in college football, the schemes and level of player talent largely remain the same on any given team.
Then, perhaps it's more likely for bad teams to stay at the bottom of the turnover margin ranks? Of the bottom 20 teams in turnover margin in 2012, seven maintained their place at the bottom in 2013: Southern Mississippi, Arkansas, Idaho, Texas Tech, Hawaii, Nebraska, and (you can guess this one) Illinois. But, if we go back just one more year, the only team to carry over a spot in the bottom twenty from 2011 to 2012 is Army, who was the third best team in turnover margin in 2010, and who, this past season, moved back up the rankings to an average turnover margin of zero (T-63rd).
Going back as far as 2007, it's still somewhat rare for teams to see teams stuck at the bottom of the ranks for more than a year or two. Turnovers are not entirely random, but these numbers seem to indicate that a good amount of it comes down to luck.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the 2013 Big Ten teams ranked by turnover margin (I also listed each team's national rank as well as the number of defensive turnovers they created this year):
Unsurprisingly, the Spartans lead the way, tied for the most fumbles recovered in the Big Ten, as well as for the 2nd most interceptions. Most impressively, Michigan State accomplished this with an entirely average fumble recovery rate (50 percent) and a low rate of recovery on their own fumbles (20 percent). I would expect Michigan State to have a smaller turnover margin next year, but this season wasn't particularly lucky for them in any way. The gap between their turnover margin and the rest of the Big Ten is a great explanation for why they were able to not only win all their B1G games, but win each one by double digits.
While many of these teams were fairly average in the luck-based turnover statistics, two massive gaps--from No.1 Michigan State to No. 10 Indiana, then from No. 10 Indiana to No. 11 Illinois--stand out. Looking for answers, I delved deeper into some individual team statistics.
Illinois had an absolutely absurd amount of bad luck this year, finishing with the fewest interceptions in the Big Ten by far, with just three. The next closest team was Indiana, who had seven, coincidentally the number of interceptions that Illinois had in 2012, which tied them for 100th in the country. Since 2007, only four teams have had three or fewer interceptions in a season: Eastern Michigan in 2010, Akron in 2011, Auburn in 2012, and South Florida in 2012. I can guarantee you right now, Illinois will have more than three interceptions next year. If they don’t, they would have had the worst interception total in three consecutive seasons since at least 2006, and likely much farther back than that. Putting aside the luck aspect of interceptions, Illinois' extremely young secondary will cover better and get more picks as they grow and improve. Don't expect Illinois to be one of the best in the league at intercepting the ball, but they should at least move towards the average.
In terms of fumbles, Illinois was only somewhat unlucky. Forcing fumbles is much more controllable than recovering them, and Illinois created a well below-average number of fumbles--15, tied for 92nd in the nation. Of those forced fumbles, Illinois recovered 53 percent, which is slightly above-average. They also had a pretty standard offensive year, with only a slightly below-average number of fumbles and a 50 percent recovery rate. The main thing we can learn from Illinois' horrible turnover margin is that their interception numbers were brutally low this year and that we should also see a couple more balls on the ground next year. Exciting!
Next up is the extremely confusing Nebraska. They created an average number of picks, but recovered only 4-of-18 fumbles in 2013, tying them with Nebraska and Northwestern for the fewest recoveries in the country. Their 22 percent recovery rate was the second-lowest percent in the country. Additionally, Nebraska tied for the second-most fumbles lost on offense (16). They actually had an average rate of recovery on offense (50 percent), but fumbled so many times (32, T-123 in country) that their margin was destroyed. Nebraska can certainly expect to recover more fumbles next year, and you can probably expect their record to improve because of it. Not great news for our Illini.
There were two other teams with very interesting turnover stories in 2013: Wisconsin and Northwestern. On offense, Wisconsin was the luckiest team (in terms of fumbling) in the country. They fumbled 18 times (a pretty standard amount) but opponents recovered only four. That means Wisconsin recovered 78 percent of their fumbles--they were the anti-Nebraska. Wisconsin had an average fumble recovery rate on defense, collecting 11-of-20 opponent fumbles, but that doesn't offset their ridiculous recovery rate on O. The only reason Wisconsin didn't have a great turnover margin (like something close to Ohio State's or Michigan's) was because they threw a pretty large number of picks, 19. That ties the Badgers for 95th in the country in keeping their balls to themselves.
Coming into this year, Northwestern was expected to be a major contender for the Big Ten Legends division. Instead, they got their butts kicked on way to a 1-7 B1G record, their only win coming by three on the road in Champaign. Northwestern had some of the best turnover luck in the country last year, which explains some of their outstanding performance. If I'd looked into these statistics and written this column last year, I would've told you to expect Northwestern's numbers to change and their record to drop slightly. Unexpectedly, the Wildcats' turnover margin from this year tells us that Northwestern had wildly different luck depending on whether the ball was on the ground or in the air.
As mentioned earlier, Northwestern had fumble luck as bad as you'll find in America on defense this year. They forced only 11 fumbles and recovered 36 percent of them, following a 2012 season where the Wildcats recovered the third most fumbles in the country (16). This could help explain such a strange drop off in team performance, right? Not entirely. In terms of interceptions, Northwestern fared well with 19 picks, a number that places them for 6th in the country. Additionally, their interception rate, 1.58 per game, ties for 4th in the country, and their interceptions returned for touchdowns (4) ties them for 5th in the country. I can only find a couple teams that were better at intercepting passes this year than Northwestern, those being Arizona State and Florida State. Houston also has an argument here because of their volume of interceptions (23 and 1.92/g), but they only returned two for touchdowns compared to Northwestern's four.
Essentially, Northwestern was one of the most unfortunate teams in the country when it came to forcing and gathering fumbles, but one of the luckiest in America in terms of interceptions. So while they experienced a slight coming-down-to-Earth in terms of their turnover margin, there wasn't nearly enough of a drop-off to explain a great Big Ten team falling to the bottom three. Their performance difference must lie in other areas, like perhaps a wealth of injuries or poor luck in close games (sounds a lot like Northwestern, doesn't it?).
So what have all these numbers taught us? Well, several things, perhaps the most important being that Illinois can expect to have a better year of turnovers next year. Their interceptions were far too low, and we should get to see cool things like V'Angelo Bentley taking off for a 60 yard interception return touchdown. Wisconsin had some unsustainable fumble recovery rates this year, and Nebraska and Northwestern were both snakebitten in that department. Overall, Illinois and Nebraska had the worst turnover luck in the Big Ten, each doing so in their own way (inability to catch interceptions and an inability to pick up footballs, respectively). Not all of these stats will return to the average, but you can expect ILL/NEB/NU to improve and WISC/MSU to regress slightly, at least in the turnover department.